After coming back to England from Australia in the barque Essex I found “home” a curious place, which afforded very few prospects of a satisfactory job. For if there is one thing more than another borne in upon anyone who returns from the Colonies it is the apparent impossibility of earning one’s living in London. Every avenue is as much choked as the entrance to the pit at a popular theatre on a first night. And though it is said that we may always get a tooth-brush into a portmanteau however full it is, there comes a time when not even a tooth-brush bristle can be put there. I looked at London, wandered round it, spent all my money, and determined to go to sea again, this time in a steamer rather than in a “wind-jammer.” With this notion in my mind I went down to Hull, whither a shipmate of mine had preceded me. He had been a quarter-master in the Essex and was the melancholy possessor of a cancelled master’s certificate. He owed this to drink, of course, as most men do who pile their ships up on the first reef that comes handy. But when he was sober he was a good old fellow. He took me round to the Sailors’ Home in Salthouse Lane, and introduced me to the man who ran it. I stayed there six weeks.
The Sailors’ Home as an institution is not over-popular with seamen, especially with the more improvident of them. And the improvident are certainly ninety per cent. of the total sea-going race of man. As a rule Homes cease to be such when a man’s money is done. He is thrown out into the street or into some equivalent of the notorious Straw House. There is always much talk at sea about the relative advantages of Boarding-Houses and Homes, and half the arguments about the subject end in more or less of a “rough house” and a few odd black eyes. However rude and brutal the boarding-house master may be, however much of a daylight robber he is (and they mostly are “daylight robbers”) it is to his advantage to make his house popular. There is no surer way of doing this than ensuring his boarder a ship at the end of his short spree on shore. In many Homes the men look after this themselves. Jack is a child and wants to be looked after. As far as the Home in Salthouse Lane went, I think it combined some of the better qualities of both the common resorts of men ashore. The boss of it knew something about seamen; he was certainly not a robber, and he kept me and several others when we did not possess a red cent among us to jingle on a tombstone. He also kept order, for he had had some experience as a prize-fighter, and could put the best of us on the floor at a moment’s notice. Once or twice he did so, and peace reigned in Warsaw.
There were certainly very few of us in the Home. Hull was not quite as full of sailors as hell is of devils, as a boarding-house master once assured me that San Francisco was when I tried to get taken into his house after being rejected even less politely by that eminent scoundrel Shanghai Brown. Besides myself there were a sturdy blue-nose or Nova-Scotian; a long-limbed, slab-sided herring-back or native of New Brunswick, a big thick-headed ass of an Englishman and a smart thief of a Cockney, known to us all as Ginger. We lived together without quarrelling more than three times a day. This we thought was peace. It was certainly more peaceful than my last boarding-house at Williamstown, where we had a little bloodshed every night. But there the very tables and benches were clamped to the floor; the windows were too high above us for anyone to be thrown out, and on a board nailed beyond our reach was the legend, “Order must and will be preserved.” But that boarding-house was very exciting; my last excitement In it was tripping up a man, treading on his wrist and taking away a razor with which he meant to cut throats. In Hull we never went further than a good common “scrap,” though they happened fairly often.